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Selling a house is no longer a matter of hiring a real estate agent, sticking a sign in a front yard, installing a lock box, going to work or wherever, and expecting a would-be buyer to find it irresistible. You can't plunk down your morning coffee cup on the countertop, feed the cat, leave wet towels on the bathroom floor, and blithely head out the door knowing that your agent can drop by with a prospect any old time. Nope. Now the house must be staged.

The goal of staging is to allow would-be buyers to imagine themselves--and their furniture and decor--in the space that you currently occupy. The house must be immaculate, thoughtfully arranged, and as impersonal as a stylish hotel suite. It takes a stern attitude and a laser-like focus on a timely sale to get all those instances of you out of the house. But it's what the current market demands.

Sound intimidating? You could wait to sell until you move out and the house is empty. But that makes it even more difficult for buyers to imagine themselves there. Or you can hire an interior designer to do the staging. If you decide to do it yourself, know that it's not a skill-based project like installing a new toilet or repairing a damaged retaining wall. But you have to follow rules for best results.

I went through this over the last few months. Since I'm not very sentimental, it did not trouble me to purge my personality and strip the house nearly down to its bones.

A forceful starting point: Real-estate websites like Zillow, and redfin post photographs of your house when it goes on the market. If you're using a real estate agent, you'll probably get the services of a professional photographer who's experienced at showing the best angles of your personal space. To do that, it's necessary to pare rooms down to bare essentials, because a space with a seemingly reasonable quantity of furniture, books, pottery and wall hangings can look cluttered and distracting when viewed through a camera lens.

Here's an easy way to tell if you're on the right track: Make a box with your fingers (like a picture frame) and look at each room. If your eye is dragged in too many directions, get rid of those distracting items. Then try the box again. You'll soon get a sense of when the setting is sufficiently clear.

To achieve that clarity, says real-estate website Trulia: Remove about half of your furniture. Re-arrange what's left away from walls so visitors can see the actual size of each room and there's an open flow from one space to another. Clear small appliances off kitchen counters. No toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, contact lens cases, or hair products should be visible in the bathroom.

This next step is difficult for many: Pack up family photos, toys, pets' food and water bowls, refrigerator magnets, religious stuff, baskets of laundry, stacks of magazines and videos. Don't stuff them in a closet or garage or attic, because potential buyers look in those places with the expectation that they'll find a tidy and roomy space, not one with messy piles of household detritus in them. (They look in refrigerators too.) So you need to put all that stuff in boxes and get it out of the house.

2.Clean, clean, clean. This is a big job that never seems to end. It took me weeks to scrub the oven, cooktop and refrigerator, kitchen and bath cabinets, tubs, showers and toilets, doorknobs, light switches, baseboards, walls, floors (carpeting, tile, hardwood, stained concrete) and sweep off ceilings (especially popcorn ceilings, which accumulate dust on their nubby surfaces).

If animals lounge on your furniture as mine do, buy a spray-on upholstery cleaner and follow directions. Launder comforters, throws, towels, pet beds and toys, and all other household fabrics. Touch up paint scratches on walls and doors. If you get through half of one room and are totally discouraged, consider hiring a pro. I almost did, but the arrival of several weekend downpours gave me no excuse, so I got after it.

Open blinds and curtains and turn on lights in all rooms, including bathrooms and closets, before a showing.

If your furniture looks lived-in, think about putting it in storage and renting new pieces.

Power-wash the exterior of the house, driveway, walkways, porches, and patios. You have no idea how much dirt is there; I sure didn't. But after my real estate agent and a friend who's sold several of her houses within days of listing them told me that this has to be done, I did it, and was thrilled at the difference it makes.

Clean windows. Rake leaves, trim trees, and tidy up landscaping. Be sure the house number is clearly visible from the street. Repaint the front door. Replace a frazzled entry mat with a cheery (but not personal) one.

When a showing or open house is scheduled, add flowers in vases, a bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter, folded towels in the bathroom. Be wary of spray fragrances and scented candles, which can bother those with allergies (I stopped short of baking cookies for potential buyers). And vacate resident animals--I walk my three dogs until they are worn out when showings are happening. Nobody wants to deal with a sign on the door that says Don't Let the Cat Out.

Know that showings can be scheduled at the last minute. So budget some time each morning before heading off to work or whatever to clean up the kitchen, sweep floors, put away clothes and shoes, and spruce up the bathroom. You'll thank me if you get a text from your real estate agent at 11 a.m., telling you that a potential buyer wants to come over at 11:30 a.m. on the day you left a pile of dishes in the sink, a pair of rinsed-out tights hanging in the bathroom, and a wet pair of running shoes just inside the doorway.

Last but not least: Give up fragrant food while the house is on the market. You may love stuffed cabbage or baked cod or fried onions, but this is not the time for scents of such to be lingering. We've been eating a lot of rice lately.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

Editorial on 04/14/2019

Print Headline: KAREN MARTIN: Setting the stage to sell a house


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